De Regnis Duobus, dual civium



By David Beilstein

OVER at Lutheran minister Jordan Cooper’s blog, Just and Sinner, he posted an article some time ago concerning the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms, and that of Westminster Seminary California’s band of professorial two kingdom activates, pejoratively called ‘Escondido Theology’ by some – most infamously, RTS seminary Professor John Frame, and his book of the same name.  

Cooper himself is a wise, young theologian, with great theological acumen – an impressive ability to explain complex theological truths from a historically Christian, and Lutheran perspective; making them cogent and interesting. A former confessionally Reformed Christian, Cooper’s blog, encompassing all manner of Christian theology, is erudite and wonderful – a hearty boon to the confessional Christian blogosphere.

That said, some mischaracterisations in his understanding of the Reformed/Presbyterian version of two kingdoms theology seem apparent; therefore, a clarification could help restore some understanding.

The Rev. Cooper starts out,

The blogosphere is full of discussions of two-kingdom theology and neo-Calvinism. Especially with the publication of David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, and John Frame’s recent publication against so-called “Escondido Theology”, the Reformed seem to all be talking about views of church and state.

What bothers me, is that once again, the Reformed are talking about “Lutheran” views without actually looking at Lutheran sources. The theologians at Westminster Seminary and California are seen as “Lutheran” (or most often caricatures of these theologians), and thus Lutheran theology is judged on that basis. But are these theologians really Lutheran in regard to this issue of two kingdom theology? It is my contention that they are not.

I can understand Pastor Cooper’s animus. Being a Lutheran, he must get frustrated that proto-Presbyterian and Reformed expressions of the two kingdoms, being maligned, as Lutheran, by Reformed critics opposed to the “two kingdoms” doctrine, must boil his pudding.

Still, Professor David VanDrunen’s book, Natural Law & The Two Kingdoms (not mentioned by Mr Cooper) distinguished between Martin Luther’s own ideas about the two kingdoms, and that of historically rooted reformed ideas about the two kingdoms. There are differences. Sadly, unlike Lutherans, Reformed theologians abandoned two kingdom doctrines in the 20th century, largely due to Karl Barth’s influence and his Christologically based rejection of the dualism inherent in two kingdoms theology.

While many conservative Reformed Theologians rejected Barth’s neo-Orthodoxy, they did not abandon his Christological basis to which he rejected the doctrine of the two kingdoms. And so, in our modern times, the two kingdoms have become the provenance of Lutheranism – decoupled from the Reformed Theological mainstream.

The importance of Professor VanDrunen’s book (Natural Law & The Two Kingdoms) then, is to illumine the abandonment of two kingdoms theology (and natural law) in reformed circles during the 20th century by Reformed theologians and laypeople, is reletively new within Reformed theology. Professor Vandrunen helpfully shows quite clearly, this abandonment was an aberration from the Reformed mainstream historically understood.

Cooper continues,

In modern discussions of two kingdom theology, with such writers as Michael Horton, David Vandrunen, Darryl Hart, and Jason Stellman, there seems to be a conglomeration of Luther’s two kingdom approach and American church/state relations. This strict separation between the Christians involvement in the two realms is far from the Lutheran traditions definition of two kingdom theology. Often in the Vandrunen approach, the church and state are separate to such an extent that there is no interaction between the two kingdoms. The public square becomes something of a secular no man’s land, wherein one’s Christian presuppositions and convictions are not to be discussed. So what is the actual Lutheran approach to the subject?

I would presume all the people mentioned by Cooper would admit freely their two kingdoms theology is not Lutheran solely, but classically reformed, driven to a more consistent theological heft than either Martin Luther or John Calvin (men of their times, of course) were able to express. Again, Reformed and Lutheran doctrines of the two kingdoms have similarities, but they are not the same. Add to this Calvin’s explication of the Kingdom of Christ, which helped erect the Presbyterian doctrine of the spirituality of the church, added more elaborations upon Luther’s two kingdom’s doctrine. While neo-Calvinist’s kvetch about the two kingdoms doctrine being “Lutheran”, they are in error, historically. Cooper rightly explicates this in his article, but I think wrongly understands what Professor Vandrunen and other 2k proponents of the reformed persuasion are saying.

Having had the chance to listen to Professor Vandrunen teach about the two kingdoms in person, and then ask him questions, Cooper’s point about an Escondido coupling of the two kingdoms with the notion of an American separation of church and state, seems odd. I have never heard Vandrunen make that case. Neither have I heard (or read) Professor Vandrunen separate the church and state so that there is “no interaction between the two kingdoms.”  Professor Vandrunen expressly denies this.

But just as important to understand is, what does the separation of church and state mean. It is not a belief occurring in a vacuum or outside of historical context. In America today, there are three basic ideas about the separation of church and state: A). No separation, largely the belief of American evangelicals. B). Get religion out of the public squares totally, a product of the modern progressive left, and C). The Founding Father’s actual beliefs, articulated by Jefferson and Madison mostly; no establishment of religion nationally, but freedom to express any, all, and no religion, as long as those religious beliefs are peaceable.

Westminster Seminary California’s two kingdom advocates would themselves, largely be personal activates, politically speaking, of option C. However, that is not the basis of these professor’s two kingdoms’ doctrine. The Holy Scriptures are central, and so are Reformed (and Lutheran) classical approaches to the two kingdoms and natural law.

However, those views have been modified by professor’s David Vandrunen, Darryl G Hart, R. S. Clark, in the macro, in order to create a more consistent representation of two kingdoms theology neither Luther or Calvin were able to obtain, being men of particular theocratic contexts. It fell largely to confessional Christians in America to modify the two kingdoms doctrine when America came to fruition in the democratic revolutions of the 18th century. This modification reached a primal apotheosis, when American Presbyterians revised the Westminster Standards in 1788. Such providence further decoupled the civil magistrate from religious matters in America, because and since, the first Amendment of the U.S. Constitution disestablished a national religion.

In the micro, however, each professor Cooper lists has personal ideas about how they think Christians living in 21st century America should harness a Reformed doctrine of the two kingdoms. There are differences here, too, between each professor. Those differences, however, are not the central core of a Presbyterian/reformed two kingdoms doctrine. In general, all these professors would agree with a basic Lutheran and Reformed idea of the two kingdoms; they each, however, have articulated those views with various nuances and differing levels of clarity – in particular contexts.

Cooper explains a basic Lutheran understanding of the two kingdoms,

The state began after the fall. When Cain killed his brother, God did not choose to kill Cain but protected him, so that no one would be allowed to murder Cain. Thus began the state wherein the rights of both believer and non-believer are defended. Genesis 9 repeats this principle, as God makes a covenant with all of creation and promising punishment to all who commit murder.

So if the state contains both believer and unbeliever, and God desires to protect even the unrepentant sinner, how does he rule? It can’t be through the gospel, because that only applies to Christians. This is why God operates through the law in the state. In Romans thirteen, Paul writes that even a pagan emperor is an instrument of justice. He is placed in power to reward civil obedience, and punish disobedience. This maintains good order, and external righteousness (while never judging the heart.)

I have read nothing by Professor’s Vandrunen, Hart, or Clark that would disagree with what Cooper writes here. This is basic, Augustinian (St Augustine lays this out in City of God) and Lutheran concepts (as well as Calvinistic) understanding of the two kingdoms.

Cooper continues,

So does this mean that Christians should be quietists, and ignore what happens in the state since it only applies to unbelievers? Not at all! God is the king of both the church and the state, and calls Christians to be involved in the civil realm. It is imperative in the command to love one’s neighbor that we are involved in the state to such an extent that we promote what benefits others. For example, Christians have a duty to fight abortion, not to bring about the kingdom of God on earth (this is confusing the two realms, mixing law and gospel) but because we love those among us who are unborn. I have heard some Reformed “two kingdom” proponents argue that this issue shouldn’t be discussed because it’s an issue of the state rather than the church. One couldn’t be any farther from Luther’s meaning of two kingdom theology!

I don’t know any of the Reformed proponents at Westminster Seminary California who would disagree with Jordan Cooper’s point here. And those so-called advocates, who dismiss notions of “fighting abortion”, I’d like to have some major names listed here by Pastor Cooper. I have heard all the Escondido two kingdoms advocates’ blast abortion for the abomination it is. Never once have I heard a prominent two kingdoms reformed believer advocate not discussing abortion because it is a state issue. I have heard various 2k proponents argue the political minutia of abortion should not be discussed during the Divine Service, but not that it isn’t an abominable sin.

The political direction Christians take to oppose abortion is not to be lorded over Christians from the pulpit is the issue. Cooper seems to simplify this in order to create as much difference between himself and what he sees inaccurately (no offense!) of ‘Escondido theology.’

Politically speaking, 2k provocateur, and now Hillsdale College visiting professor, Darryl G Hart, has said the role of the church is not to prescribe a particular way of fighting against abortion. In other words, if one Christian believes a state-by-state push (taking advantage of Federalism) is the best way to save the unborn, they should not be looked upon as “less Christian” than a person(s) who advocates national legislation against abortion, or education in the private sector against abortion. The Holy Scriptures are clear abortion is a sin – it is not clear on the proper approach to rid American society of the scourge of abortion by individual Christian citizens.

Overall, it is nice seeing Jordan Cooper argue for a difference between Lutheran and Reformed ideas about the two kingdoms. And it is to be admired Cooper understands the basic goodness the two kingdoms doctrine has on the Christ’s Church and a proper understanding of the parameters of the state. Still, it would be much more useful to many, if rather than a caricature of the two kingdoms by reformed theologians, pastor Cooper interacted with these professors with more depth and clarity.



  1. Being a Lutheran, I have run into this ‘problem’ before.

    That being where a pastor or layman believes that they (Lutherans) alone, know the truth. (or a particular brand of Lutheran) It’s more of a problem in the more conservative denominations such as the WELS or LCMS, but not restricted to them.

    We do believe that we know the truth. But we understand that there are others out there who also know it. And we thank God for it.

    Thanks, very much for your thoughtful piece, David. Very well done, my friend.

  2. Steve,

    Thank you, I appreciate it.

    You keep me uplifted. I know I’m not wasting my time when I got people like you throwing comments my way. Thanks, again.

    I’m not a theologian and it is a confusing issue. Basically, I agreed and disagreed with Mr Cooper. On the one hand, it is anti-2k Reformed laziness to try to label 2k theology as “Lutheran”. But unlike Lutherans, or at least conservative, confessional Lutherans, there is seemingly no Lutheran movement trying to denounce the two kingdoms, I’m aware of. Maybe you are aware of some Lutheran theologians, who are?

    On the other hand, Mr Cooper’s criticisms toward Dr R. Scott Clark, Dr D.G. Hart, and Dr David Vandrunen, miss the 2k positions they have articulated. And they have gone out of their way to say, 2k kingdoms theology is not strictly “Lutheran” – though, they very much agree with much of Luther said about the two kingdoms. This is where it gets confusing and might have confused pastor Cooper. WSC theologians love Luther’s 2k doctrine, and Calvin’s – their mission has to try and apply it more consistently in a society without an established religion. Maybe I got that across, maybe not. It’s confusing! I have talked with all of these theologians (Hart, Vandrunen, Clark) and none have articulated the radical 2k concept argued for in Dr John Frame’s “Escondido Theology” or seemingly, Mr Cooper’s article.

    You are correct. Us confessional, liturgical Christians can get full of ourselves because we do have such a rich tradition, an full-orbed Biblical theology passed down over hundreds (and thousands of years).

    We have to remember, as Dr R. Scott Clark told me over the phone, to always be winsome and gracious. We did not get to where we are overnight. It will take others the time it took us – if God indeed, Wills.

    Still, You would do well to visit pastor Cooper’s site, Just And Sinner. He seems like a great Christian brother, and a studied young Lutheran theologian. My understanding and push for the 2k doctrine, is not to rid society of Christianity, but in the manner of the Presbyterian doctrine of the spirituality of the church, to protect and animate Christ’s Church.

    As someone said far wiser than me – maybe it was Dr J. Gresham Machen: If someone needs surgery, someone will do that. If someone needs a car, someone will build that. But who will preach the law-gospel and administer the sacraments, if not Christ’s Church??? A mission, a glory, a privilege, given specifically to the Church by the Lord of Glory Himself.

    That is a great honour, Steve, and the two kingdoms doctrine is a beautifully, full-orbed Biblical presentation of how that should be done. That’s my humble opinion anyway!

    Glad to see you commenting brother.

    I’ll try to send you an email when I get some free time.

    Soli Deo Gloria,


  3. Thanks, David. You are a gentleman and a scholar, in the truest sense.

    I know of a great many Lutheran preachers and teachers who are a bit off on their 2k doctrine (in my opinion). The liberal ELCA type Lutherans clearly don’t get it. They are so often (painting with a wide brush here) the Democratic Party at prayer, that it blows your mind.

    And the more conservative denominations such as WELS or LCMS seem to be that way, but only for the Republicans. I used to listen to ‘Issues Etc.’ with Todd Wilken (LCMS pastor and theologian), but so much of time his show was dedicated to politics that it used to drive me crazy.

    My pastor is not perfect and has his faults, but I do believe he has an excellent 2k doctrine understanding. He is a conservative Republican, but oftentimes you swear the opposite or at least scratch your head and wonder. But the job in preaching is to destroy both sides, as a place for people to hang their hopes.

    Our congregation is roughly 50/50 Dems. and Repubs. I know because it’s a fairly small group and I’ve been there 15 years. This could not happen in the average ELCA church who would have driven out all the conservatives (or “converted” them)…or in the average LCMS church where the opposite would occur. Again, painting with a wide brush.

    I will have to check out M. Cooper’s blog. If you the guy is alright…I’m sure he is.

    Gotta try to get some sleep. A touch of insomnia tonight.

    Looking forward to your e-mail, when you get the chance.

    Thanks, David.

    – steve

    • Steve,

      You bring up some interesting points. I do not know the insides and outsides of the different Lutheran communions, so what you have written here is helpful. I do listen to Issues, Ect; I can also see your point. Christianity is not politics – and we ought to clearly define that. At the same time, and I hope to address this later on, Christians are dual citizens, with one foot in the Sacred kingdom, glimpsed most visually in partaking of Word and sacrament, and one foot in the secular kingdom, in terms of work, marriage and children civil duties (voting, governing). It is the duty of all Christians, as exiles, pilgrims, to work and keep the city upon which they reside, for the benefit of saints and non-believers alike. When Jordan Cooper talks about WSC professors saying there ought to be no interaction between the two realms, I think he is mistaken. There is interaction, the interaction is in the Christian saint, pilgrim, exile. And so secular work does not build the kingdom of God – still, the saints are motivated by the ethic of the Sacred kingdom. To put it another way, while engineering cannot be “Christian” – nor math or science, specially, the Christian saint who is an engineer, scientist, doctor, Ect., is to do all thing to the glory of the true God, doing them Christianly. And so the interaction between the Sacred and secular realms, is in those who by shear grace, called to Christ through the Holy Gospel – this is where interaction is Biblically, in my humble opinion, preserved.

      Maybe that clears up my thinking for you brother Steve. Thanks for your insights, and compliments, my Lutheran brother.


  4. David,

    I could not agree more. We have a duty, to live outward, for the neighbor, and that involves politics, necessarily. The mistake that so many make is to tie those politics to the gospel in some way.

    I believe the only way that politics should ever be tied to the gospel is to set politics in stark relief to what the Lord has done, is doing, and will yet do, for us. And point to the ultimate futility of politics in the end.

    I have had friends, liberal friends, were in my estimation quite wrongheaded when it came to their politics, but who were preached out of the church by well-meaning pastors who could not recognize and separate the ultimate from the penultimate.

    That is a crying shame.

    Keep up the great work, David!

    God bless you, friend.

    – Steve

    • Steve,
      Your liberal friends being preached out of the church is the primary thing Hart, Horton, Clark, are arguing against, using a 2k doctrine to exemplify how unbiblical that kind of thing as. Leftism is foolish, unwise – I believe classical liberalism is the far wiser political system and one that best animates and preserved human individuality and potential – at the same time being the better check toward civil unrest, which atrophies human dignity, etc. still, as you have spun out so nicely, classical liberalism is limited – a penultimate answer to “This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” It is the Holy Gospel that reconciles dead men, strewn on the valley of dried bones, that raises men to spiritual life …. The law commands, and destroys, the Gospel, that sublime mercy of God, breaths life into that dead man and woman and in mystery, makes all things new, consumated in the age to come. As CS Lewis said, myth becomes truth.

      A beautiful thing! Thanks for your insightful reflections, brother Steve!


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